GOONEWARDENA (1916 - 1996)
Vivienne (“Vivi”) Goonewardena, pioneer socialist and idiosyncratic
feminist, died in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 3rd 1996. Born on September 18th
1916 into an affluent, upper caste, and conservative family, her life and
politics were shaped by the most interesting times of the Sri Lankan Left and
she was in turn one of its more colourful personalities.
was drawn into politics while still in school (at Musaeus College) through the Suriya
Mal movement when in 1933 anti-imperialists and nationalists launched the
sale of local flowers as an alternative to poppies with the slogan “against
slavery and poverty and for freedom and prosperity”. As Head Girl she was to
recruit her entire school to this cause. It was from this mass campaign that the
Lanka Sama Samaja Party was forged in
was exposed to the ideas and activities of the socialist movement initially
through her maternal uncles, Philip and Robert Gunawardana, themselves leaders
of the Left. With their support, she defied her father and was among that then
small group of women to enter University – completing her studies against his
best efforts to frustrate her.
growing involvement with the LSSP brought her into regular contact with Leslie
Goonewardena, with whom she fell in love. He was a graduate of the London School
of Economics, a rising star of the Party, and later to be one of its central
leaders and chief propagandists including author of its official history.
match was opposed by her father as Leslie belonged to a lower caste and was a
revolutionary under surveillance by the British colonial regime. However Vivi
persisted, and following judicial intervention, was married to Leslie in 1939.
LSSP opposed the Second World War and its activists were leading strike
movements against the British. The Party was banned and its leaders imprisoned
or forced to go underground. To evade arrest Leslie Goonewardena and others
including Vivi escaped to India in 1941. There the couple threw themselves into
the Quit India movement and
participated in the formation of the Bolshevik-Leninist
Party of India (BLPI), a socialist organisation aligned with the ideas of
Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International, in April 1942. They returned to
Ceylon only in 1945 once the warrant for their arrest had been revoked with the
end of war.
1948 Vivi was one of the initiators of the first socialist women’s
organisation, Eksath Kantha Peramuna (United
Women’s Front). This organisation collapsed shortly after when the Communist
Party withdrew support for it as part of its non co-operation policy with
was elected to parliament on an LSSP ticket between 1956-60, 1964-65 and 1970-77
and appointed a junior minister in that last term. She was also on several
occasions a Colombo municipal councillor and a life-long trade unionist, serving
as President of the All Ceylon Local Government Workers Association until her death.
1964 she was among the most enthusiastic on the LSSP leadership of the prospects
for the Left and working people in an alliance with the Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by the world’s first woman Prime Minister
Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
1994 she was again to be an advocate for Left participation in the Peoples
Alliance coalition government dominated by the SLFP and led by Mrs.
Bandaranaike’s daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
the United National Party government
between 1977 and 1994, Vivi regularly confronted the authorities usually leading
demonstrations on International Women’s Day.
was particularly concerned during this period about the rights and treatment of
women workers in the Free Trade Zones, and the social dislocation to families of
migrant women workers to the Middle East.
1983 following a demonstration against the US military occupation of Diego
Garcia she was physically assaulted at a police station. Her fundamental rights
application in this matter was upheld by the Supreme Court in a rare act of
early supporter of the Gorbachevite reforms in the USSR, Vivi pressed to no
avail for the unification of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the LSSP, believing past
differences to be precisely that.
was a bitter critic of neo-liberal economic policies and the war in the
north-east of the island, a combative presence and voice in any forum. However
like her comrades her horizons had long since lowered. Defending the gains of
the past took precedence over renewing and extending them. Socialism had become
‘an ultimate aim’.